France has signalled openness to sending fighter jets to Ukraine as western countries weigh the next steps in military assistance to help Kyiv resist Russian attacks.
“By definition, nothing is excluded,” President Emmanuel Macron said at a press conference in The Hague on Monday, adding that he had not received a request for jets from Ukraine.
Since the US and Germany announced last week their decision to send main battle tanks to Kyiv – something France has not yet done – Ukraine’s backers have turned their attention to the possibility of supplying US-made F-16 or other western fighter jets. Ukrainian officials have said more advanced aircraft would help bolster air defences, repel Russian attacks and help prepare for a renewed offensive in the spring.
US president Joe Biden on Monday night ruled out sending F-16s to Ukraine, which appeared to dent Kyiv’s hopes that its biggest backer would lead the movement on the jets. Germany has taken a similar stance, but some more hawkish European countries such as Poland are in favour of sending combat aircraft under certain conditions.
Paris has informed other European capitals that the possibility of sending additional weapons systems, including jets, is on the table, according to two officials briefed on the discussions, but a decision is unlikely to be made in the immediate future.
The priority remains to provide air and missile defence systems, they said, and the new push to provide tanks and train Ukrainian crews to use them.
Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov met Mr Macron and his French counterpart in Paris on Tuesday and said they discussed jets, but no “specific names or types of planes”.
[ Battles rage in east as Ukraine awaits ‘first wave’ of up to 140 western tanks ]
Mr Reznikov downplayed Mr Biden’s statement, noting that as it was the case with howitzers and tanks, allies would eventually come around: “For every request we make –the answer is no at the beginning... I’m sure that eventually we will have a real modern jet platform.”
On Monday night, Mr Macron once again laid out the criteria France uses when considering requests for military gear from Ukraine: will it be useful and practical for the Ukrainian army to use? Does it pose the risk of escalation? Will supplying the military hardware weaken French military capabilities?
“We make these decisions based on the requests Ukraine makes, not the rumours going around ... every time we get a request we consider it,” Mr Macron said at the press conference following a meeting with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.
Based on such criteria, France has so far decided not to send its Leclerc main battle tanks to Kyiv, although Mr Macron has not ruled it out and has agreed to send lighter armoured personnel carriers known as the AMX-10. Ukraine was keener to acquire German-built Leopard 2 tanks.
Kyiv is also in negotiations with the French and Italian governments to obtain the advanced medium-range air defence system SAMP/T, similar to the US Patriot battery, which can shoot down ballistic missiles.
[ Scholz confirms Germany will send Leopard tanks to Ukraine ]
Defence analysts expect that France would send an older model of its Mirage jets to Ukraine if Mr Macron opted to supply combat aircraft. Manufactured by Dassault Aviation, France had 106 Mirage 2000s in service at the beginning of last year, all of which will be replaced by fifth-generation Rafale jets by 2030.
France retired 14 Mirage 2000C jets in June, so giving them to Ukraine would not degrade French military capabilities, and it will phase out a further 26 Mirage 2000-5 interceptors over the next few years.
Given that France makes its own jets, there would be no need for third-party approval to export them. Several European armed forces operate F-16s but would require US authorisation to send them to Ukraine. That made French jets a more obvious candidate, one of the European officials said.
The UK government said it was “listening very carefully” to requests for more military equipment for Ukraine.
But a spokesman for prime minister Rishi Sunak said Britain did not believe it was “practical” to send fighter jets –such as Typhoon and F-35s – to Kyiv.
“The UK’s fighter jets are extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly. Given that, we believe it is not practical to send those jets into Ukraine,” he said. “We will continue to discuss with our allies what is the right approach.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023